Probing MaRS

It’s at the corner of University and College: the word MaRS on an immense blue dot. The building it points out occupies an entire block on College Street.

But if ask your average U of T student what MaRS is, and they’ll give you a blank stare.

MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences), which opened last fall, is a “convergence innovation centre,” according to a website and flashy, rainbow-coloured billboards that surround the site. It is a not-for-profit corporation including the Toronto Medical Discovery Tower-a 15-floor building full of labs housing University of Toronto professors, start-up companies that MaRS provides with business resources, and investment groups that fund the development of basic research discoveries into products.

Because MaRS strives to encompass such an unusual mix of corporations, capital, and research, it immediately draws suspicion from those who are leery of the private sector’s involvement in research, universities, and health care.

Dr. Paul Hammel, a professor in the faculty of medicine and a former president of Science For Peace, objects to the model.

“I’m not personally going to go to a seminar or give a seminar at MaRS. They’re mixing publicly funded research with private enterprise,” to increase the profits of private corporations, he said.

Hammel thinks universities should be able to carry research through the development stage by themselves. He points out that people who work in private pharmaceutical companies were all initially trained at universities.

“Why is it that we can’t get those people together ourselves, instead of handing over everything to somebody else to make money and charge us again for those same things?”

As the newest corporate edifice on the block, MaRS has also drawn flak from at least one student peace group: People Against the Militarization of Life, who recently pranked U of T President David Naylor [Varsity Feb 16 2006] citing the university’s involvement with MaRS and MaRS’s association with Battelle Memorial Institute, a corporation with ties to the U.S. military.

When asked why Battelle has an office at MaRS, Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS and Naylor’s wife, appeared somewhat frustrated.

“Battelle has one small office here in a 700,000 square foot complex. So having that as a focus is unfortunate and out of proportion,” she said. “Battelle has had a number of important breakthroughs in the area of medical research. Military research is not what we do, or would want to do. Haven’t done it, do not do it, have no interest in it.

Jim Woodgett, head of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, understands both sides of the debate, but he believes MaRS is a valuable link between business and research.

“It’s easy to say ‘evil corporate empire,’ but get real,” he said. “I don’t think MaRS is at all powerful. I think MaRS is a conduit. It’s a lens. It’s trying to focus and bring together two communities which don’t communicate very well.”

Woodgett is sensitive to Hammel’s concerns with the mixing of public and private interests.

“Clearly there are issues with corporate funding of research. For example, the information isn’t free. You can’t publish everything-they want to review everything before you publish it.”

Woodgett points out, however, that medical scientists have an obligation to help their discoveries become therapies.

Woodgett describes how MaRS can help carry research beyond the lab.

“Scientists should not be distracted [by] product design and product marketing. This is not what we do,” he said.

“I think you should also be concerned about missed opportunities as well. You should be just as concerned that somebody doesn’t pursue a discovery and translate it into either a product or diagnostic or a new drug.

Dr. Woodgett made it clear that this was a business venture with a moral rudder.

“I think MaRS will be a net gain,” he said, then slightly reconsidered. “I hope it succeeds. It will only take money out [health care] if it doesn’t succeed. It’s an experiment. It’s not a sure thing.”

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